Saturday, May 9, 2009

Duel of the Month Club: Alternate Weapons Edition

Thus far, all of the duels we've mentioned have been pistol duels. If I remember my chivalrous movie scenes correctly, it's generally the challenged party who is allowed to choose their weapon. When Senator Charles Sumner (R-MA) delivered a two-day-long speech beginning on May 19, 1856, he inadvertently became the challenger in an impromptu duel.

Sumner's speech, an hours-long tirade focused on Kansas, which had become a battleground after Congress had decided to make slavery in the state subject to a popular vote. Sumner accused the South of conspiring to make Kansas a slave state, and peppered his speech with personal accusations aimed at several of his fellow senators. Among them was Andrew Butler of South Carolina, whom Sumner described as having taken "the harlot, Slavery," as his "mistress."
Two days later, on May 22, Butler's nephew, Congressman Preston Brooks (D-SC), seeking to "avenge the insult to my State," walked into the mostly deserted Senate chamber. Finding Sumner working at his desk, Brooks began beating the Senator over the head with his cane, with enough force to snap the cane into pieces.

Admittedly, this is a somewhat one-sided duel. On the other hand, the public recognized that Sumner had struck a sound enough blow verbally, that his opponent was obliged to respond with physical assault. The fight had far-reaching consequences, polarizing those in the North and the South. For his part, Sumner's speech was printed, with a million copies distributed. Though suffering concussions and severe headaches, Sumner eventually recovered and was able to return to the Senate. As for Brooks, he was sent several new canes, with inscriptions reading "Hit him again," and was even reelected to Congress.

Source: David Brian Davis and Steven Mintz, The Boisterous Sea of Liberty: A Documentary History of America from Discovery through The Civil War (New York: Oxford University Press, 1998).

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